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Thursday 9 May 2013

HTC One - an unreview, or what could be done better?

Finland is a funny market. Home of Nokia, most interesting devices take a while to actually become available here. Three years ago, I got my Nexus One by help from a colleague based in UK. It served me well - while it had always been pretty short on memory and for a long time had not been too impressive in terms of speed, it had a nice form factor and, even by today's standards, a fairly good display. However, I had been planning to swap to something more up to date for a while.

The Nexus 4, however, still isn't available here. Sure, at times a local retailer might have a few units with a pretty unattractive price, but the value proposition Google gave for the device is unreachable, since they will not deliver it from Germany, France, or UK to Finland. So much for the unified trade region of the European Union..

13050001_1 So, when I first heard of the HTC One, I had not picked up anything as a new device. I had considered a Galaxy S III, but I can not warm up to the imitation-chrome-rimmed plastic design Samsung is so fond of. In sharp contrast to that massive sales hit of the Android world (behind only the iPhone in sales figures), HTC One is a gorgeous design item. Enough has been written about its surface features, I see no point adding to that conversation. To my eye, HTC One wins the physical aesthetics crown among current phones, with the iPhone 5 and Nokia's Lumia 720 coming behind it. Each represents a very different philosophy and executes the details well. Anyway, I'm more of an Android guy, so even if One wasn't so gorgeous, I would not pick an iPhone or Lumia for myself.

But Finland isn't among the first markets for HTC either - heck, often it isn't an early market even for Nokia. In addition, One has suffered several delays, just barely making it to some markets ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S4, which must be its worst rival. So, especially since I managed to crack the Nexus One's screen to an unusable state, I had to resort to foreign help again - always a bit of a gamble with even with unlocked phones, due to the network differences. Since I couldn't locate a device in Germany, it was time to look what UK could deliver. And deliver it did - through Ebay, I received an untouched, still-in-retail-wraps HTC One last Friday.

I have to say it's just as beautiful in real life as it was in pictures. The finish is exquisite, with the aluminum, glass and polycarbonate seamlessly fused together. I would have happily traded 10 grams more mass and a millimeter in thickness for a more powerful battery, which I'm certain is the weakest part of the device, but it's not difficult to come up with a strategy that will take the device through my regular working day. As most reviews have concluded, it's at the top of Android models, if not of all smartphones.

But what of the un-review? Here are the things HTC has failed to do a good job with, all in the software installed on the device, as noted over one week of use. Where I've figured out a workaround, that's noted, too.

  • The Power Saver - yes, it has one built in. However, the way it's implemented (as an always-there checkbox at the top of the Notifications panel), it obstructs Android 4.1 from presenting the expanding notifications (which are present only for the topmost item). Those notifications are very useful. So, long-tap on the power saver option until an App Info pop-up appears. Through that, you can kill the Power Saver to recover the notification menu. For power saving itself, I use Llama profiles and a few events I've come up with over time.
  • The Calendar - several dealbreaker presentation problems, such as no weekday info in the daily view, no event labels in the weekly and monthly views (despite plentiful resolution to display small type on the Full HD 4.7" screen) and terribly confusing multi-calendar display options. I replaced it with Google's own Calendar app, hiding the built-in tool. They'll show the same calendars and this swap in no way prevents the lock screen and BlinkFeed from continuing to show calendar entries.
  • The keyboard's auto-complete and auto-correct is really irritating, including that hitting space will complete words but not insert the space. Replaced with SwiftKey, which is a far more competent solution anyway - but I might not have done it, had the keyboard been just that tiny little bit more finished.
  • The Share menu in HTC's own apps, including the browser. Limited to showing only four sharing options, among which HTC's own service and the not-so-great Mail app, all of the tools I use to share content (most notably GMail and Buffer) require extra taps. Chrome does not suffer from the same issue, though, so for browsing, this is easily bypassed. Too bad, because the HTC-customized stock browser is otherwise quite competent, slightly faster, and supports Flash for the few situations where that still is valuable.
  • That Mail app. Sure, it will connect to various mail servers including Exchange and private IMAP servers, but it's not nearly as polished as the GMail app, and all my mail accounts are backed by GMail anyway. This would not be a big deal, except for..
  • The lock screen is able to show weather, upcoming calendar entries, incoming SMS messages and the latest mail headlines - except, it will show the latter from the Mail app only, not from GMail. D'oh. Naturally, some might prefer to not show that potentially sensitive data on the lock screen, but I'd prefer the convenience, if it worked.

While overall I still prefer stock Android to these manufacturer customizations, HTC has improved on a couple of points. BlinkFeed is a nice presentation of news, Facebook and Twitter streams without leading to any undesirable duplication of work so common in these aggregation apps, the People browser that replaces both Android's Contacts app and the stock dialer is pretty good, though it takes some getting used to, and the camera application is a good use of the unique capabilities of the device. Of the major flaws, only the Mail/lock screen issue is something I have not found a workaround for, and it's a stretch to call that issue major. Nonetheless, I hope and expect HTC to deliver an update (perhaps along with Android 4.2) that would address these issues, many of which have been already noted by others, too.

Oh, and the camera? Its 4MP "UltraPixel" direction certainly sets the device apart from the competition. I have not done comprehensive side-by-side tests of it, but it does have good low-light performance (especially considering others, including the Lumia 920, use much longer exposure times and thus suffer from more motion blur, even if their image stabilization were able to eliminate camera shake). Perhaps the color balance could be slightly better. As for the resolution, it's certainly enough for online use, though won't leave much room for crops. Considering no mobile camera apart from the already-extinct PureView 808 can compete with a zoom-enabled pocket camera, let along a DSLR, I think the camera performs where most consumers would need it to. I hope HTC's gamble will pay off, and those same consumers won't be misled by the megapixel wars.

The other stand-out feature, unmatched sound output certainly stands out as well. This is the first mobile device capable of putting out a decent audio stream that I've tried. I doubt music will ever truly sound good at this scale, but at least its recognizable even from a distance. Most importantly, voice output comes clear and loud, so this is by far the best speakerphone ever made. If there's anything I can fault it with, it's this - even the lowest volume setting is sufficiently loud to carry over in a quiet room in a way that might bother other people nearby. I'd like one more setting below it, but headphones solve this with minimal inconvenience.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Passwords are a broken system

..and I'm not even referring to the multitude of website passwords this time. I thought earlier OpenID would be the fix to those, but apparently not -- perhaps OAuth 2.0 and Facebook will be, though.

No, this time I'm talking of personal computer passwords. I don't have a huge amount of recent first-hand experience with how Mac and Windows work in this department, but the Linux/GNOME experience, connected to some presumably sensible company network access control, is certainly busted. Or, perhaps it's just me, and I'm doing something wrong - in which case, I would love to hear from someone who knows how to do this right.

I have:

  1. an encrypted home/user partition on my laptop hard drive, for which I have to type in a password to get the computer to boot. Never mind that the operating system partition (which doesn't contain anything secret, since the OS is downloaded off of Fedora Project's web site) isn't encrypted, so the computer ought to be able to boot without the user partition password -- it doesn't. That's a separate peeve. This is password #1.
  2. a password for my user account, since GNOME login facilities seriously under-appreciate using an account without a password. Never mind that I already proved who I am by typing in a password during boot - well, the last boot that was on average 19 days and 78 suspend-resume cycles and 42 laptop-bag trips ago. As far as I can tell, there is a valid reason for having this password, though I could imagine switching that to fingerpring recognition. Password #2.
  3. a password for the GNOME built-in passphrase storage keyring, which automatically collects things like network WPA passphrases, ... well, that's about it, really, but anyway, it makes life somewhat bearable. Password #3. In fact, all that stuff is actually stored in a keyring with a very long random string as a key, and a separate keyring holds a copy of that, locked using the password #2 -- when things work. This is what is supposed to let me type in a password once, and have the system usable.
  4. a password for my company account which lets me in to things like the intranet. One of many, many, many work-related passwords in various systems, internal and external (mostly external), which are infeasible to synchronize to one-time authentication at least today. This one is special though, because it's practically impossible to get any work done without it. Password #3 (I didn't count the one above, because it's not supposed to exist).
  5. a KeePass keyring pass phrase, because the GNOME keyring a) doesn't have decent UI so it could be used for manually managed passwords b) because of above, there are many of those c) that I need to also use on other devices, so this keyring is synced to those devices. Password #4, for those who are counting.

That's just the start, but without these, nothing works. Now -- password policy best practices often say that passwords must be changed periodically, in order to ensure various guarantees of dubious value. I ask you this - what happens, when one of the above passwords must be changed?

As good as my memory seems to be with random alphanumeric strings of letters and digits, I simply can not maintain four of them in memory along with the credit card PIN, phone number PIN, VPN token password, GMail password, Facebook password, and so on an so on, if I'm supposed to also get any work done. Especially not if one needs to be swapped out to a completely new random thing every now and then. So, I do what any human would do: try to minimize their number.

Because I'm relatively security conscious, I don't do that by using the name of my childhood pet on every system from the most security sensitive to every second web site that appears to require its own password. No, what I do is try to use the same password in all five of the above cases, because a) they're all needed in sequence anyway, b) I can't do effectively anything without access to all of them. I still need to type it way too many times, but at least that keeps the memory fresh.

Except -- changing any one of those places doesn't change any of the others. Not even the supposedly-integrated 1, 2 and 3. So, I end up with 5 instead of 1, and I don't know which is which. New "enter password to keyring 'default'" dialogs pop up on my desktop, prevent anything else from receiving any keyboard input, accept nothing as a valid password, and prevent me from working for 45 minutes. 

I did figure out how to solve it, though -- prevent GNOME Keyring from accessing the 'default' keyring (for which there is no typable password to begin with), force it to change its login password to the new login password, and then re-enable access to the main keyring with all the WLAN pass phrases and other assorted stuff. However, it still wasted a lot of time, and would probably have stumped anyone else I know (I'm pretty hard core with this crap, sad to say).

Broken? Yes. How to fix it? Hell if I know. Perhaps posting this rant would prompt the LazyWeb to point me in the right direction. Having to follow a 20-step routine to change one password isn't the fix, though.

Friday 28 August 2009

Why mobile computers are a bad idea

After my last night's posting, I had a small exchange with @moximilian and @jludwig about my claim that calling the N900 a computer is BS and nobody wants a computer. Somehow, Nokia has gone from calling the N-series devices "multimedia computers" a couple of years back to "mobile computers" today, but it's a totally horrible thing to do from a market positioning point of view. I suppose I should clarify my reasoning a bit.

This is how I imagine the thought process has gone: Nokia, an engineering-led manufacturer of fixed-function devices (phones) has had the ambition to "put the Internet in your pocket" for quite some time. So far, so good. Now, an engineer designs a brilliant package of a high-performance programmable microprocessor, significant amount of working memory and storage memory, and a rich set of input and output mechanisms. To an engineer, this fits the definition of a computer, thus it must be a computer.

However, that is not how the world at large sees computers. The general understanding of a computer is a device which requires constant management, is at risk from viruses and other malware, produces incomprehensible error messages and, despite being a window to the wonderful new world of Twitters, Facebooks and all kinds of information and entertainment, is best left alone when at all possible. Yes, the computer industry has made great progress in the last decades in making their produce more approachable and human-friendly, but it's not there yet. Apple, for all its faults, is generally regarded as the gold standard in "computers for the normal people". Yet who hasn't seen a Mac or even an iPhone (once loaded with applications, at least) bug out in the most bizarre of ways?

Computers don't have any built-in value of their own. The value is completely attached to the applications, services and solutions to which they provide access. If it was left at that, and calling something a "mobile computer" would be simply a bad choice of marketing titles, I wouldn't mind. However, as long as the engineers working on the future devices think it's desirable to think of them as computers, they will carry the problems I mentioned along to future devices, because that's what computers do.

The device in your pocket is a terminal, a window onto the services of the Global Computer, and a flexible access point to things no one has yet to invent. It is programmable, it does have memory, and it can compute. Even so, lets not call it a computer.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Reflections on Nokia Maemo

Earlier today Nokia announced their first handset based on what is likely to be their mobile operating system of the future - the Nokia N900 Maemo. I didn't think I would bother to pay attention, but somehow, I ended up doing so anyway, and this post is a result of that time spent thinking about it. I like quite a few things about it, but can't avoid being deeply bothered by other aspects. I hope by writing this I can make some small contribution to its future.

Why do I care? After the frustrations and disappointments with Nokia devices in the past years, I've tried not to. However, they're impossible to ignore in Finland, I have family reasons to hope this road leads to something good, and it's an attempt to make an open platform -- and I care about open platforms. Why do I feel qualified to comment? Well, because this is not really about devices, it's about software. And software is what I've always done, and managing software organizations is what I think about daily.

There's lot to like about the N900. I haven't seen, let alone played with one, but as far as the specs go, it's a pretty nice set of hardware. Same performance as the iPhone 3GS (which also makes it faster than any Android device announced), 3D acceleration, lots of storage (and a memory card slot), and, as a welcome change from many other Nokia devices, completely standard connectors (3.5mm audio, micro-USB tethering and battery charger). On the hardware side, the only thing not to like about it is the lack of a finger-usable, multi-touch display. This device, like all the other Nokia devices before it, require a stylus or at least long fingernails. It makes up for that by being really high resolution.

It's also based on an open source, Linux-based operating system Nokia has been developing for several years with community participation, Maemo. This makes it more attractive to me on a personal level than iPhone (which is way too closely guarded and controlled by Apple), Palm WebOS (open, but little track record), or even Android (open, but built out of pieces which have far less common with normal Linux than Maemo). It should be fairly clear that all four mentioned are way ahead of things like Symbian S60, which clearly needs to be taken behind the shed and put out of its misery, not matter what Nokia's representatives say about it official capacity.

On a more professional level, the inclusion of Flash 9.4 in the platform is a big deal. I'm anxious to get hold of one and see how much work it is to make Habbo work on it. This could be the first handset capable of technically running it (enough performance, enough resolution, good enough software), though obviously tuning our service to a mobile device would still need work on UI and other pieces.

However, like I wrote above, there's also plenty that bothers me. First of all, unlike most people probably realize, this is actually the 4th Maemo device in about as many years that Nokia releases. First was the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, essentially an early adopter test device. Then came N800 -- running an updated OS which required applications to be ported to it, but which never was officially released for the 770 (putting the early adopter developers in a rather awkward position). Less than a year later N810 added a physical keyboard and an OS upgrade (which fortunately could be installed, with some difficulty, on the N800). That was quite a long time ago, though.

In the meantime, Maemo has been completely reinvented. The original UI toolkit has been switched to QT, which Nokia bought in the meantime, and all of the (rather limited quantity) applications require significant rework to be compatible with the OS release on the N900. The public reasoning for this compatibility break has been pretty weak -- "to ensure compatibility with S60", which also is moving on to QT framework. Why is this weak? Well, because the transition over on the S60 side also requires all of the (somewhat more numerous) applications developed for that platform to be significantly reworked. In other words, Nokia broke compatibility on both its old smartphone platform and the new platform at the same time, and offered little transitionary compatibility layers to either side. Not for the first time, either. S60 applications have been broken between upgrades several times before, too.

This track record is highly worrying. Despite their years of practice and ambitions to have a lively third party mobile applications market, Nokia has clearly not grasped the importance of a stable platform to the developers they mean to attract. This lack of understanding of one of the most basic requirements is enough to counter pretty much everything I wrote about Maemo versus its closest competitions a few chapters earlier.

Contrast the above to iPhone OS 2.0 to 3.0 transition. Sure, a few things did change. However, developers were given months of notice ahead of time, and the changes, apart from added functionality, were all pretty minor. Of course, Apple has a long history of making major upgrades while retaining forwards compatibility, with the Mac OS 68k to PowerPC, then to OS X, then to Intel CPU transitions.

It's also taken a LONG time for this device to be announced. I don't know, but I get the feeling it's something like a year late. The break in launch schedule between N810 and N900, the amount of changes in the Maemo platform, and the design of the device compared to for instance the N97 all scream "last year" to me. Besides, everyone knew this was coming ages ago. In the time between the launches of N810 and N900, Apple has managed to update the iPhone twice. This lack of predictability in the release cycle doesn't bode well for the next device in the line.

There is nothing more important for progress in software development than cycle time. The only cost-effective, productive way of making software today is to get feedback on it often, and the longer it stays unreleased, the more the feedback is late when it comes. This seems to be another area where Nokia has not been able to shake off their "we make hardware" mentality. Unline hardware, software can be updated with no extra cost. That's an advantage nearly everyone else has learned to make use of, and Nokia, if they truly desire to become a software and services powerhouse, has to finally take to heart.

N900 is not an "iPhone killer". I don't think it's meant to be. When its development started, it's unlikely the iPhone had even been announced. However, it's the best chance for Nokia to ever develop a device better than an iPhone. I hope they will - the world needs competition, and I would like to see Nokia be part in that. However, at this rate they will never catch up - Apple will have released two more major updates before the next Maemo device unless Nokia gets their act together.

I'm still hoping.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

MySQL Users Conference followup and MySQL's business model

Last week saw MySQL User Conference 2008 in Santa Clara, but I was not able to make time for it this year either. However, in the wake of Sun's acquisition of MySQL, it was very interesting to follow what was going on. A few things that caught my attention:

MySQL 5.1 is nearing General Availability and an interesting storage engine plugin ecosystem starts to emerge. It's this latter, but related event that I see as the first real sign of validation for MySQL's long-ago chosen path of pluggable storage systems instead of focused effort on making one good general-use engine.

Oracle/Innobase announced InnoDB Plugin for MySQL 5.1, which much-awaited features which promise a great deal of help for daily management headaches. More than that, InnoDB Plugin's release under GPL lifts quite a lot of the concern I'm sure many users like us have had about the future viability of InnoDB as MySQL storage engine.

A couple of data warehousing solutions are launched, also based on MySQL 5.1 -- Infobright is one I've already researched somewhat (looks very interesting, as soon as a few current limitations are lifted), Kickfire I know nothing about right now but would love to learn more of.

There's a huge amount of coverage graciously provided by Baron Schwartz that I have yet to fully browse through.

A few remarks by Mårten Mickos regarding MySQL's business model seem to have kicked up a bit of a sandstorm. I don't really understand why; I read these to just verify that the direction MySQL took last year is to continue this year as well. I don't see any major changes here regarding the licensing structure, software availability, or support models. Frankly, it seems like yet another case of Slashdot readers not reading, let alone understanding, what they're protesting against, and press following up on the noise.

I do understand the critique made against MySQL's chosen model, though. In fact, I went on record last September to say that I understand that critique. I still see the same issues here. I believe we represent a fairly common profile of a MySQL Enterprise customer in that what we want from it is not the bleeding-edge functionality but a stable, well-tested product that we can expect to get help for if something does go wrong. We don't see great value in having access to a version of software that isn't generally available to "less advanced" or more adventurous users for free in a community version. In fact, we see it as a negative that such functionality exists, because it hasn't received the community testing, feedback and improvements that makes great open source software as good as it is. While new functionality is interesting, and we're trying to spend time getting familiar with new stuff in order to use it in production later, it simply isn't prudent to put business-critical data in a system that hasn't received real-world testing by as large a community as possible (unless you have no other alternative, and then you takes your chances).

Yet it seems to me that this is essentially what Sun/MySQL continue to propose for the Enterprise customers by delivering "value add" functionality in a special version of the server or plugins to it, possibly in a closed-source form that further reduces transparency and introduces risk. Mårten, I'd prefer it to be otherwise. How can I help you change your mind about this?

Friday 21 September 2007

MySQL Community vs Enterprise tension

I probably don't spend quite enough time following progress around MySQL considering how critical the product is to us. I'd like to consider it part of the infrastructure in a way I treat Red Hat Enterprise Linux, ie something I can trust to make good progress and follow up on a quarterly basis. Naturally we have people who watch both much more closely, but my time simply should, and pretty much is, spent doing something else.

However, it seems MySQL really demands a bit more attention right now. Today I went and read Jeremy Cole's opinion about MySQL Community (a failure), and I have to say I agree on many of the points. MySQL simply has not yet found a model that works as well as that of Red Hat's Fedora vs Enterprise Linux - that is, really giving the Community edition to the community to direct, and using the Enterprise edition as a platform for enterprises to depend on.

I feel the fundamental problem really is quite simple; as long as MySQL maintains the community edition (both binaries AND the source tree) themselves, and don't let the community integrate features to it on a timely basis, the model will not function, not even to their paying customers (us included). However, if they reverse this particular point from the current status-quo, all of the other benefits are inevitable.

The comparison to Fedora and RHEL is rather obvious, despite the distribution vs single product differences. Fedora is a great community Linux distribution with the latest-and-greatest features integrated to it on a very timely fashion. Not even Ubuntu can really compete with Fedora in terms of features. However, what Fedora gives up to reach this is a certain amount of polish and reliability. I will happily use Fedora as a personal platform, because of the latest features, but I would not pretend to run a stable system on top of it. For that, I'll rather choose something a bit more mature, that has proven itself in the community and received further QA ahead of commercial release. This is RHEL, and this is what the MySQL Enterprise should be. A version that, when it's released, I shouldn't have to hesitate to install on a new production server.

I also today learned about the Dorsal Source MySQL community release. Now this looks like something MySQL Community release probably should be like. I'll have to give it a test round and see what's up.

Update: Baron Schwartz describes a MySQL Enterprise that I would have far less trouble using than the existing one..